For undocumented immigrants seeking asylum, the process of getting before an immigration judge to explain why they fear returning to their home country requires patience. Many anxiously wait years before their case reaches a judge's docket, their future on hold until the court's massive backlog of immigration cases catches up to them.
Asylum-seekers spend the days leading up to the court date preparing, which means rehashing the often traumatizing events that forced them to flee their country. For most, the long-anticipated hearing couldn't come soon enough.
But with the federal government at a standstill, the asylum-seekers whose court hearings were scheduled to take place over the past 17 days have been told to wait a little longer.
While federal immigration judges across the country are holding hearing for immigrants in detention during the shutdown, all non-detained people seeking asylum—many located in Portland—have had their cases indefinitely put on pause while Donald Trump holds out for a border wall promise.
"Everything's in limbo," says Jordan Cunnings, an attorney who manages Equity Corps, an organization financed by Multnomah County and the City of Portland that offers legal aid to immigrants facing deportation. "It's an emotional and intense experience for a client to prepare for court, and now they're being told it was a big waste of time."
Cunnings works with a client who was one court hearing away from a judge's decision to either grant them asylum—or deport them. With Portland's immigration court closed, there's no clear idea when that hearing, planned for last week, will be rescheduled. With a national backlog of nearly 800,000 asylum cases, it's possible the delay could punt a case years down the road.
"I have no idea what to tell people," says Eileen Sterlock, a Portland immigration lawyer who chairs the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA)'s Oregon chapter. "We already have enough scheduling problems in immigration courts as it is, this just throws more uncertainty into the situation."
It's not just those awaiting trial who've been impacted by the shutdown.
Many people have tried to file time-sensitive asylum paperwork on deadline at the Portland immigration court, only to find the offices shuttered. Lawyers are being told that clients can mail in that paperwork, but only if it's sent through USPS—FedEX and UPS won't do.
Not everyone has a lawyer to explain these arbitrary rules.
"I'm worried about those without representation," says Leland Baxter-Neal, an attorney with the ACLU of Oregon. "Are people going to be deported because they didn't have an attorney and missed a deadline and didn't know what to do?"
Baxter-Neal calls the shutdown's impact on the immigration courts an "absolute disaster." Cunnings, meanwhile, says this uncertainly has just become part of the job.
"It's another example of working in a dysfunctional immigration system," she says. "We must keep going forward."